Please be advised that the following essay discusses sexual assault.
When the Me Too movement hit its peak I had a dozen long phone calls with women I’ve known, with whom I’ve shared work or school experiences, as we sussed out the finer points of sexual harassment. The country was crackling with a million phone calls and emails like this, women desperate to share: the pat on the ass that was not our fault, the unwelcome kiss that we were sure we somehow invited. All these events clicked into a pattern because our definition of harassment was shifting.
A similar moment occurred in the mid-to-late 1970s, shortly after the passage of Roe v. Wade, when Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will couched rape as a political issue, when the first statutes criminalizing marital rape were enacted, and when campus feminist groups began to popularize the term date-rape. Rape no longer meant only the unknown assailant jumping out of the bushes. Rape occurred between acquaintances, on dates, and within marriage. The discussion reframed rape not as an act of desire, but as a method to police women.
The blockbuster film Saturday Night Fever, which came out in 1977, can be read as a product of this rapidly evolving discussion. Like amber traps a dragonfly, Saturday Night Fever catches, mid-flight, the moment of ‘70s zeitgeist that accommodated various—and conflicting—definitions of rape. Molly Haskell wrote during this period that “The closer women come to claiming their rights and achieving independence in real life, the more loudly and stridently films tell us it’s a man’s world.” When Michael Corleone shut the door on Kay at the end of TheGodfather, she says, it’s as if filmmakers were shutting women out of films for the decade. Saturday Night Fever shows us both the feminist impulse and the backlash. It shows us a strong and assertive female character, and then it assaults her. Stephanie’s decision to open her door to her assailant at the movie’s close may say even more about the ambivalent role of women in ‘70s film than Kay’s isolation.
My interest in Saturday Night Fever intensified when I put it on the syllabus for a course I taught a couple of years ago on films of the 1970s. I thought the story of Tony Manero, the disco king from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and his upwardly-mobile dance partner, Stephanie, would be an ideal last assignment after a semester of hard work—something light and enjoyable, a palate-cleanser. As a teenager, I saw the movie in the theaters with a boyfriend. Everyone went to see it. It was fun. But the movie I watched in preparation for my class was not at all the movie I remembered. Yes, there are moments of elation, and there are some funny lines. But there is also the unabashed racism of the main characters, the grim hopelessness of Tony’s work and home life, the casual gay-bashing, the joyless and exploitative sex, and the rape. Not one, but two rapes, in very quick succession near the end of the movie: Tony’s attempted rape of Stephanie, and also his friends’ gang-rape of Annette, the girl who loves him. Saturday Night Fever is not fun. It’s brutal.
How had I so grossly miscalculated? Partly due to Saturday Night Fever’s afterlife. As with every popular film, the apparatus of its memory of it has taken on its own life: the phenomenally popular soundtrack album, the poster of John Travolta in his white jacket. The film is wrongly credited with sparking the disco culture; it’s more accurate to say that it marks the moment when disco—up to that moment a megaphone for voices that were queer, black, or female—became accessible to straight white men, and thus the moment marking its decline.
Part of my errant memory may be due to the split personality of the movie itself. Indeed, there are two movies duking it out for supremacy. On one hand is the lavish vision of producer Robert Stigwood, and on the other the working-class sensibility of screenwriter Norman Wexler. Stigwood was a music producer and agent who longed to break into film and who had a genius for promotion. It was he who insisted on casting John Travolta, the young breakout star of the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter and an unlikely teen idol. And Stigwood presciently decided that, rather than stack the soundtrack with popular disco hits from reliable (Black) acts like Kool & the Gang or Gloria Gaynor, he would commission new songs from the moribund talent signed to his stable, namely a forgotten Aussie boy band that had recorded a couple of mournful ditties in the 1960s. Screenwriter Norman Wexler was a cranky leftist who had penned the explosive movies Joe and Serpico, in which toxic masculinity and racism collide against the backdrop of a crime-ridden, recession-era New York. (Tellingly, Wexler seems to have modeled Saturday Night Fever’s most loathsome character—a pretentious music producer who hopes to break into film—on Stigwood.)
But my greatest miscalculation is due to the fact that I simply did not remember Tony’s assault on Stephanie as attempted rape. Hours after the assault, she refuses to open her door to him, conceding only after he profusely apologizes. I hadn’t remembered the assault as rape even though Stephanie mutters, “First time I let a known rapist in my apartment.” It’s an astounding line of dialogue, given how much credence was still, in 1977, given to the notion that a girl like Stephanie was ultimately responsible for leading on a boy. Today, Tony’s crime strikes us as unambiguous, and the difference in our response then and now registers just how much our definition of rape has evolved.
A refresher for those who haven’t seen the movie, or have forgotten: Saturday Night Fever is the story of a 19-year-old Italian American who clerks in a paint store. His father is a laid-off construction worker, his mother is querulous and depressed, and their relationship is punctuated with slaps and insults. Their despair deepens when Tony’s favored brother quits the priesthood. Tony finds relief only on the weekends, when he and his buddies—Joey, Double J, Gus, and the unhappy Bobby C.—dress up and hit the local disco, a shabby affair with the aspirational name 2001 Odyssey. They are “the faces,” the kings of the disco floor, especially Tony. Gearing up for a lucrative dance contest, Tony discards Annette, the neighborhood girl who pines for him, in favor of the ambitious and elusive Stephanie.
Race is central to the frustration of Tony’s gang, who feel they’ve gotten a raw deal. In the disco scenes, the camera lingers on 2001 Odyssey’s one Black regular, imitating the angry glare of the locals. Tony first notices Stephanie because she and her partner are the only dancers who don’t stomp off the floor when the DJ puts on a salsa record. The Italian Americans feel their claim to Bay Ridge is under attack by Black and Puerto Rican trespassers. When Gus is hospitalized after a street fight, the gang, acting on little evidence, viciously attacks a Puerto Rican social club.
Indeed, it is Tony’s confusion about race and identity that sparks his rage at the film’s climax, and, indirectly, his assault of Stephanie. On the night of the big dance contest, a Black couple and a Puerto Rican couple outdance the home team (although Tony—and by extension the movie—only recognizes the Puerto Ricans’ superior talent), eliciting a hostile reaction from the 2001 crowd. When the prize money unsurprisingly goes to Tony and Stephanie, Tony is furious, and hands the trophy and prize money over to the Puerto Rican couple. “You deserve it,” he says.
This is an extraordinary moment of self-awareness. Tony, we would say today, has become cognizant of his own privilege, and he refuses to cooperate with the system that grants it. But it is at this very moment that Tony orders Stephanie into Bobby C.’s car and tries to rape her.
It’s hard to say if Wexler would have read Susan Brownmiller. But Against Our Will was one of those books whose reach extended far beyond its readership. Building on work begun by Susan Griffin in her 1970 Ramparts article, Brownmiller’s 1975 book is generally credited as the first attempt to examine a history of rape, and to discuss it as an assertion of power, rather than sexuality. Its importance cannot be overstated, and Brownmiller’s battle cry—that rape is the means by which all men oppress all women—resonated powerfully.
However, the book has some wild weaknesses, particularly on issues of class and race. Brownmiller is widely quoted as saying, “The typical American rapist might be the boy next door.” What is not quoted is the next sentence: “Especially if…the neighborhood you live in happens to fit the socioeonomic description of lower class or bears the appellation of ‘ghetto.’” Brownmiller defends her race and class bias by quoting police statistics, even though she admits elsewhere in the book that rape is rarely reported and even more rarely ends in conviction; it never occurs to her that arrests and convictions might be disproportionately meted out against Black and working-class men.
Thus she quotes at length, and without irony, the criminologist Marvin Wolfgang, whose “Subculture of Violence” gained currency in the 1960s:
Within the dominant value system of our culture there exists a subculture formed of those from the lower classes, the poor, the disenfranchised, the Black, whose values often run counter to those of the dominant culture, the people in charge. The dominant culture can operate within the laws of civility because it has little need to resort to violence to get what it wants. The subculture, thwarted, inarticulate and angry, is quick to resort to violence; indeed, violence and physical aggression become a common way of life. Particularly for young males.
Like Brownmiller’s, Wolfgang’s statistics fail to take into account bias among police, courts, or accusers. Indeed, institutional power does not enter into his analysis. But this ideology was common in the postwar period, even before Brownmiller adopted it specifically to discuss violence against women. We see its influence throughout movies of the ‘70s—for instance, Scorsese’s movies, where men use their fists whenever language fails them. We see it earlier too, like in West Side Story, where gang members excuse their violence—including sexual assault—because, as they say, “we’re depraved on account of we’re deprived.”
At the time, Brownmiller had her detractors, even among progressives who questioned her methods as well as her conclusion that the frequency of rape is unchanging throughout human history. Writing in the feminist journal Signs, Edward Shorter maintains that, given the rise and fall of incidents of rape (again, he is working on the notion that rapes are reported equally across classes), “‘sexual frustration’ works as a better primary explanation than ‘politics.’”
How would ‘70s audiences have interpreted the violence against Stephanie’s body? Her assailant is a working-class man, ineffectual at expressing dominance. He has just been surpassed by people of color at what he supposedly does best—dancing. Unable to understand the changing world around him or to articulate his confusion, he exerts his dominance over a woman. “Everybody’s gotta dump on somebody, right? Of course,” Tony says as he leads Stephanie to Bobby C.’s car. “My pa goes to work and gets dumped on, so he comes home and dumps on my mother, of course, right? And the spics they gotta dump on us so we gotta dump on the spics, of course.” This monologue would corroborate the Brownmiller/Wolfgang view, that rape is variation of the aggressive acting out of men oppressed by capitalism.
Or is he just sexually frustrated? This would be the view put forward by Shorter. During the dance contest, Stephanie, who has previously shown no romantic interest in Tony, shares a soft-focus, slow-motion kiss with him to the backbeat of the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman.” Is the movie saying that Tony has been, to use his word, cockteased to the point of rape?
How a viewer reads this may depend on which movie she has been tracking—producer Stigwood’s disco musical or Wexler’s kitchen-sink drama. And that may also determine how we read the ending, whether it’s happy or just dimly hopeful. I remember my boyfriend at the time saying he believed there was romance in the future for Tony and Stephanie, and I argued that it was impossible. Through her very last line in the movie, Stephanie insists she just wants to be friends; in fact, she sees it as a test of Tony’s growth if he can “stand being friends with a girl.” But I was listening to the screenplay; my boyfriend was listening to the soundtrack. And during the montage of Tony, glumly riding the subway after Bobby C.’s death, waiting for daybreak so he can show up at Stephanie’s apartment, the Bee Gees ask “How Deep Is Your Love?” Presumably, of Stephanie, as if to say, “How deep is your love, Stephanie? Deep enough to forgive Tony for trying to rape you?” If you see this as a love story, Tony’s violence against Stephanie is a bump on the road to maturity.
If you see this as a story about class and race, however, the assault takes on a Wolfgangian ideology; Tony pummels Stephanie the way his father pummels his mother, because they’re both going nowhere. The end is downbeat. Tony may want to move up in the world, as Stephanie has, and leave his idiot friends behind, but he possesses, as she bluntly points out, absolutely no work skills. Still, he recognizes his sins, and believes he is different from his “asshole” friends who rape Annette, also in the backseat of Bobby C.’s car.
Because the rape of Annette is uninterrupted, it is coded differently than Tony’s attack on Stephanie. And the disturbing subtext is that Stephanie is just tougher than Annette. On the night of the dance contest, Annette, consumed by jealousy, drinks heavily and pops pills. She makes out with Joey hoping Tony will notice. When Joey escorts Annette to the car, Tony half-heartedly tries to stop him. Joey fights him off, saying—not untruthfully—“You don’t give a shit about her.”
Annette’s emotional fragility, her drunkenness, her initial compliance, her lack of inner resources would all point to a narrative of blaming the victim. And the audience might have interpreted this narrative were it not for Donna Pescow’s delicate performance. Director John Badham keeps the camera close on Annette’s face, as she careens from jolly acquiescence to fear. By the time Joey scrambles into the front seat so Double J can take his turn, she is in a full panic. Badham cuts away only to show Tony’s agonized helplessness. Travolta registers the many ways Tony feels responsible. His unrelenting shabby treatment of Annette demolished her self-esteem and signaled her worthlessness to Joey and Double J, and he realizes his assault on Stephanie, minutes earlier, was every bit as violent. But even then, Tony lacks the emotional intelligence to own up to his culpability in Annette’s assault. “Proud of yourself now?” he asks Annette after Double J peels himself from her. “Is that what you wanted? Good. Now you’re a cunt.” Annette, disheveled and shaken in the back seat, is shocked, and so are we.
Pescow’s performance as Annette is so finely tuned we see on her face the moment sexual compliance becomes rape. And as we watch, we realize the movie is taking on an issue that, in 1977, was even more hotly contested than Stephanie’s acquaintance rape. Annette is drunk. She is in no shape to offer consent. And, mid-coitus, she changes her mind.
Had Annette’s story ended here, audiences might have remembered her gang rape as a condemnation of the brutal aggression of Tony’s friends, the gang of “assholes” from which he longs to separate. But the next few minutes include a strange coda for Annette, who, distraught after Bobby C.’s fall from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, seeks comfort in Joey’s arms. We last see them leaving the fatal site together, in an embrace.
The message here seems to be that Bobby C.’s death has softened both Tony and Joey. Of course, it’s their mistreatment of Bobby C., rather than their violence against women, they seem to regret most, their repeated and callous disregard of his calls for help. But we are asked to believe that as they take stock of their misbehavior they become better men, non-raping men. In this Wolfgang-influenced world of aggressive working-class men, rape is a childish thing that grown men learn to set aside. And Saturday Night Fever remains a movie about men, and ultimately rape is something they must learn to endure.
Every critic of Saturday Night Fever has pointed out the glaring weakness at the center of the movie, the casting of Karen Lynne Gorney in what should have been the career-making role of Stephanie. On paper, Stephanie is the most complex character in the film: pretentious and smart, vulnerable and witty, selfish yet compassionate. Unfortunately, Gorney just doesn’t have the depth to pull it off, and it’s tempting to think what a more inflected, tough New York actress of her generation—Lorraine Bracco, say, or Ellen Barkin—might have done with the part, someone whose magnetism matches Travolta’s. The gulf between the charisma of Gorney and Travolta means we will always remember this as Tony’s story.
In her article “Hitchcock’s Blackmail and Feminist Interpretation,” Tania Modleski says that “rape and violence, it would appear, effectively silence and subdue not only the woman in the films—the one who threatens patriarchal law and order through the force of her anarchic desire—but also the women watching the films.” But Stephanie is not subdued, and by extension, neither are we, and it is in this way Saturday Night Fever marks the beginning—however slight—of change. It is clear in that last scene that she is calling the shots, and that Tony’s only hope is not only to refrain from violating her, but to emulate her. Everyone remembers the picture of Tony alone on the dance floor, in his white polyester suit. We would remember a very different movie if instead we kept pictures of Stephanie and Tony, in the same frame: a story of two kids, one of whom had the moxie and smarts to make it out of Brooklyn.